William James on the Great Eastern, 1867

June 30th, 2008 Posted in Magic Lantern

The Great Eastern being refitted at Liverpool, 1866.

“The Great Eastern outclassed everything that had come before it, even in a century that lived to crack champagne bottles on the bows of maritime superlatives.  A ‘Triton among minnows,’ as the newspapers called it, the British-built ship measured five times the size of anything else afloat.  In fact, it outsized any ship that would launch for the next fifty years.  It resembled a ‘great swollen hunk of a premature Leviathan,’ the press observed, with its five gigantic smoke funnels and its paddles the size of Ferris wheels.

“A vainglorious and ungainly monster, the Great Eastern had captured the admiration of Walt Whitman.  Even more thoroughly, it had fascinated the French fabulist Jules Verne, who wrote an adulatory account of it called Une Ville flottant (A Floating City).  Verne, in fact, shared the voyage from New York with William [James]–William’s voyage out, Verne’s return.  The Frenchman had made a career of writing science fiction based ont he exciting leaps in transportation that he along with the James family had witnessed.  In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), he wrote precociously about submarines; in From the Earth to the Moon  (1865) about space travel.  With his full iron-gray beard, this thirty-nine-year-old best-selling writer would have been somewhat conspicuous to his fellow passengers, though William evidentlyd idn’t notice him at all.  But although the two men weren’t acquainted, they no doubt passed each other on the broad avenues of the pitching decks.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved


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